This piece was originally published in April 2018.
I wasn’t well able enough to be a live and in-person witness to the April 4th celebration/commemoration/reflection of/upon the life, lynching, and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Memphis. I don’t know how long my sickness had been creeping, but I took note of it several Fridays ago, when I stood on my porch and watched the red-lettered “I AM MEMPHIS” slogan float onto my street all tall and blaring on the side of a sanitation truck on pickup day. “Who is Memphis?” I snapped at no one in particular, adjusting my raggedy pink flannel robe and my bonnet because I had been so assaulted by the declaration. The sound of my voice hit the street and a “Shiiiid, sista, Ion’teeno” bounced back from a sanitation worker grabbing up and dumping the contents of green cans. I waved weakly in the direction of the voice, and whispered a “mane” in response, and then, more definitively, a “THANK, Y’ALL!” as the truck and its logo made its way on down the street.
Lately Memphis been engaged in a kind of gross boosterism that prefigures the spectacular simulacra that is MLK50. There is a new Memphis afoot, built on the post-racial capitalist fantasy of “grit and grind,” that aims to attract new Memphians to teach in the rapidly expanding charter school sector, to endow our country town with the sophisticated art cultures they bring as they flee the rising rents in their better cities, and to innovate new ways for more new Memphians to live off poverty via the city’s expansive foundation and non-profit landscape. In exchange, the city rewards these new Memphians for their sacrifices, for living in such a poor Black town, with no sufficient public transportation to reduce their carbon footprints, where good coffee and cocktails and neighborhood bars are only just coming into reach, by highlighting their valiant choice of Memphis as their new home. There are institutes and trainings and leadership seminars for these new Memphians, where they learn their role in and worth to the city, as well as all of the requisite statistics about infant mortality rates (answer: get well-meaning white women to help Black pregnant people love themselves!), food deserts (answer: grow your own food, Blacks!), and health disparities (answer: bike lanes!). Beyond the usual tensions between the tourist version of a city and the “real” city, this new Memphis, which perhaps is the real cause of all our sickness, obliterates now Memphis and buries then Memphis, in all of its complexity and depth, at the Lorraine Motel.
The fiftieth anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., is to Memphis what the Olympics was to Atlanta over 20 years ago, which is about right for how many years we are behind Atlanta in other things. As communities have been reshaped, neglected, obscured, and obliterated in the lead-up to this moment, and as they will continue to be from here on out, we have to assess that then Memphis. We also have to tell the world loudly about the now Memphis, tell it straight from the mouths of the people whose necks the now Memphis, like the then Memphis, keeps its foot on. And we have to keep track of how our memories and experiences are being gentrified in a notion of progress that has no meaningful proof or original referent.
The discursive destruction of then Memphis and now Memphis ain’t start when I saw that sanitation truck, of course. It started 27 years previous, when the National Civil Rights Museum opened that July and the city of Memphis finally elected its first Black mayor (right on time, almost 20 years after Atlanta) that October. There was a museum about our history, about American history, and a Black mayor. It was Obama and the Blacksonian before Obama and the Blacksonian were a twinkle in the chocolate city’s eye.
I was nine when the Museum opened, which meant I was already 23 years into the mourning that got in everybody’s blood within a 25-mile radius that Thursday evening, April 4, 1968. That mourning had gotten in our blood so much so that the next generation of folks who bore babies here were more likely to lose they babies than anyone else in any other city in this country. Being born with an extra 14 years of mourning, plus learning in your own nine years just as soon as you could comprehend your own name what you should know about that mourning, and why you had to carry it just as you carried yourself—so tall and proud and better than the worst of you and the worst of white folks, too—made me tired before I ever even could really know tiredness. Like Fannie Lou Hamer sick-and-tired-of-being-sick-and-tired kind of tired. The kind of tired that made me extra musty as a little girl for no apparent reason.
The Museum was added to our annual school field trip rotation alongside trips to the zoo, which, thanks to the miracle of desegregation, we could now go to any day we pleased. We went on His birthday, on free Tuesdays, during Black History Month, and sometimes for the anniversary, and sometimes because we were on the civil rights unit in social studies. I came to expect the funkiest feeling in my heart and stomach when we got to the bus and Rosa Parks and the bus driver and the other sculptural figures were still sitting there in silent history. I hoped Ms. Parks got up in the night after the museum was closed, put her makeup on to bring her color in good, got up from her seat, and marched up the aisle and slapped the dog shit out that bus driver. Every time I returned to the Museum, to that bus, there was no evidence that she had done any such thing. I jumped at the bus driver in the way we thrust our shoulders forward and furrowed our brows to threaten a fight on the blacktop.
“My Mama was alive during them times,” I whispered not quietly to classmates on those trips, nodding with a practiced gravity. That museum told me them times was over. I wish that museum had told me that these was them times. My Mama Museum told me that these was still them times, and that them times would always be these times as long as we were Black and alive, and probably even after we were Black and dead. I hadn’t yet registered that I arrived in this life with 14 years of mourning that, like the stank of my right underarm, told me that these was them times. Sometimes I felt silly for thinking that these times was them times, because there weren’t dogs and hoses and nooses and crosses burning and white women’s teeth. Then I felt silly for ignoring all the evidence that told me these was them times and had always been them times.
Mama had shown us so many of her artifacts, in fact, that by the time people were talking about how hard Black folks (and don’t forget the good white folks) fought to open this museum, and how we all needed to go to better ourselves and know our histories, I felt I had seen and heard and inherited enough. In summer 1991 when the Museum opened, I sure smelled like it. I wondered why there had to be a fight to get a museum. I wondered if white folks didn’t want there to be a museum because they didn’t want us to find out that somebody from right in our town, and not the lone wolf outside agitator James Earl Ray, killed King. That maybe they had done it.
Being 16 when King was killed, Mama spent her whole life knowing. I don’t know how many years of extra mourning she was born with. Nor do I know which cataclysmic rupture in the Memphis history that happened to her before she was born—the lynchings of Calvin McDowell, Thomas Moss, and William Stewart? The burning of Ida B. Wells’s newspaper offices?—was the source of that extra mourning. Growing up, Mama’s stories of her every day and emotional life after that Thursday, April 4, 1968, made me know that she was herself a museum, archiving all the things of her life and rotating what was on view. She was the docent of her life and of Black southern women’s lives and Black Memphis life, guiding us through her exhibits. Mama was an activist for being a museum and for just thinking she deserved freedom. She taught us the Black folk cogito: I think therefore I am free.
Every time we came out of that place, musty and ashy with grief from what the museum said the white folks did to our mamas and grandmas and other folks who looked like us, we were sad and heavy as a patch of winter interrupting a good spring. Even though we had learned that we were a people of hope and resilience and we kept on fighting and pushing and moving and singing spirituals, precious Lord, we still had little explanation as to why white folks acted like that towards us for so long, so we tended to think one of us or some of us had done something wrong to earn that treatment. Like when the teacher punish the whole class for talking and say we can’t go outside when it was really only Marcellus and Keon talking but won’t nobody tell because we’d rather miss recess once than be a snitch forever.
When we got back into the light, we were right back at the scene of the crime, the centerpiece out of which the museum grew northward and westward, an extra arm and an extra leg. We came fresh out into the air funky not with the stank of what happened before to people who looked like us, but rather with the feeling that it was happening to us, too, seeing as we had fewer and fewer white kids in our classes, and some of the remaining ones usually got sick on museum day.
I came to expect the funkiest feeling in my heart and stomach when we got to the bus and Rosa Parks and the bus driver and the other sculptural figures were still sitting there in silent history.
What really did us in afterward was seeing that balcony and getting close enough to it so it could talk shit to us. People used to say the stain of King’s blood was still there from 1968 and that you could see it and the spatter in the concrete outside of the room if you squinted and stretched your neck. That balcony said, you don’t know nobody being murdered by white folks like this now, knocked clean up out they shoes. Nobody blood on the concrete now. Act right and read To Kill a Mockingbird. Except you, skinny little you, want to tell that balcony about your cousin who got shot because the police say he pulled a gun on them, but the autopsy say the bullets entered his back. That balcony said to us, this is what will happen to y’all ashy ass if you speak out, too. And also, you free now, so be grateful and take your math test seriously and register to vote. It also said, by this blood, white people have been made maybe a little bit less likely to explicitly infringe on your First Amendment rights. James Earl Ray was just one sick white man, not at all representative of all white folks. Your cousin was a bad Black boy called Boo who thought he was free. James Earl Ray and those cops that pull us over and threaten us and the cops that beat Rodney King (maybe folks are just really mad at people whose last names are King?) are anomalies, bad apples, who just haven’t yet been to the museum. Even though they were living in houses and spending money that was the rotten spoil of what they had done to Black people, most white folks just didn’t know what some of them had done to us. The textbooks kept them ignorant of the role they had played and how they benefited, so it really wasn’t their fault that they didn’t know. But now they know so everything is repaired now. White people are better now because of this museum. By His blood on the balcony—can you see it there? Look harder—all lives are saved.
We wasn’t actually allowed to tell nobody we was tired afterwards, in our bones and blood, so we kept our weariness deep inside us, simmering on low with a little salt. We were the young, strong inheritors of King’s dream, made flesh through our grit and grind and good grades. We had a lot of opportunities our daddies and grandmama ‘nem didn’t have. Like the opportunity to not be terrorized with dogs or hoses or white ladies with their mouths pulled wide open with wishes for our deaths, only with bullying and displacement and resentment, when we try to go to school with them. Or the opportunity to live in neighborhoods the white folks left in good condition for us, even though they might have been adjacent to chemical plants. And, of course, and perhaps most important, we now have the opportunity to wonder, wander, wonder, through the simulacra of post-racial America, whether that unjust thing that happened to us (when white folks were coincidentally involved) had to do with our race or our individual karma.
We also wasn’t really allowed to be mad about the death of King or what we had seen in that museum, just like we wasn’t allowed to say we was tired. It was time for our sack lunch on the sidewalk under that wreath, under that balcony. You have more opportunities now. Wasn’t no museums like this when we were growing up. (But my Mama is a museum, and I know my grandmama was a museum when she was only a mama.) You better stop mumbling under your breath. Anyway, like Jesus you know from Sunday School and from listening outside your auntie door at night when her friend is over, Martin Luther King, Jr., was a King who did miracles. And like Jesus, he was destined to die. That was just that. He died for our sins of protesting and rioting that brought him here and embarrassed him when he was here. His prophecy came in dreams. He went to the mountaintop in them. And he died so we could be free. Say your grace over your sack lunch. Be glad you got a sack lunch.
Ms. Jacqueline Smith was down there across from the Museum talking about gentrification before white folks even came up with terms like “preservation” and “revitalization” to describe the foolproof Negro removal in which they had been engaged since the 1950s in downtown Memphis. We didn’t know what gentrification was because we lived in neighborhoods white folks would never be interested in, in the neighborhoods they had fled on their ever-extending trek to the east of the city. But Ms. Jackie did, and she knew the Museum was part of it way before the first brewery popped up. She knew the end of the Lorraine meant the inevitable end of all kinds of low-income housing, and therefore Black housing, around downtown. Atlanta had begun the demolition of housing projects to make room for Olympic possibilities. Memphis would be next, and there would be no affordable housing for us. King would have wanted affordable housing instead of a Museum, she would say.
We wasn’t actually allowed to tell nobody we was tired afterwards, in our bones and blood, so we kept our weariness deep inside us, simmering on low with a little salt. We were the young, strong inheritors of King’s dream, made flesh through our grit and grind and good grades.
They never let us get close to Ms. Jackie on the school fieldtrips, but we might sneak as close as we dared if we finished our sack lunches early and the teachers were still huddled talking while we waited for the yellow buses to come and take us back to our segregated schools. She had worked as a clerk at the Lorraine Motel and also lived there for a time, we learned in our brief conversations with her, always looking over the shoulder to see if the teachers were looking. When the Lorraine closed in the 1970s, she did not imagine it would return as what she might call a worship site for King’s death. The Museum was like a long Groundhog Day funeral, King living and then dying and then being resurrected by each visitor to die again on the balcony. Ms. Jackie, her signs, her table, her literature, her seats, her sofa—they were all artifacts of a protest present and future. Her signs told us this museum was wrong and we were wrong for looking for King’s bloodstains. We needed more than our Mama Museums, who would get fragile. But we needed places to live, too. I didn’t know then that Jackie was the real museum to visit.
By 18, we had stopped going to the museum like we stopped going to church (or at least our Mama or grandma ‘nem church) after we moved out from under grown folks’ roof. The museum hadn’t changed much, but we had in the nine years since it had opened, over those nine years of semi-annual trips: inside to learn about a lot of white bad apples and the resilience and hope of our heroes and leaders, outside ashy to squint at bloodstains, down to pray over our sack lunches under the balcony, and over to ease our musty selves close to Jackie, curious to learn something we hadn’t in the museum. The clash of its sameness and our difference made us impatient with its fixity. In particular, I had learned how truly gangsta Rosa Parks was, and I was fire hot with how they had her stone figure sitting there. I knew damn well she ain’t want to be no stone figure, and I knew damn well how much restraint it took for her not to beat that bus driver every night.
When the Museum opened the conspiracy appendage of itself across the street in the building where James Earl Ray allegedly took that shot, or where he said he took it and then later said he didn’t, it was clear the Museum had doubled down on the themed experience of this One Spectacular Black Death. From that building, you could look out onto the balcony just like James Earl Ray said he did then didn’t, aim your eyes at the wreath outside Room 306 like a posthumous target, and imagine what Ray, a bad apple, was thinking before he might have done it.
Then when the Museum redesigned itself in the Obama era, bringing in the best Negro historians from all over the country to gentrify the story of civil rights, it was clear it had doubled down on the interests of its white funders and the containment of history in a dark building, rather than pivoting towards the diverse Black history happening right then, bright and messy in the now Memphis streets. Stationed in the “Black Power” section of the Museum last fall to provide some additional context for students matriculating the liberal arts college that semester, I watched on loop a video that subsumed the Black Lives Matter movement, perhaps the clearest contemporary tie to the Museum’s narrative, under an umbrella of “global protest” that included all kinds of uprisings of the decade. There is only one movement, however diversely populated, concerned explicitly with eradicating anti-Blackness from the core of our nation’s social institutions, I told the freshmen, these new Memphians I had influence over and desperately needed to be on the side of now Memphis.
The Museum is the Black hole around which this constellation of white economies, the ones of new Memphis, thrives.
When those good Negro historians came, unaware of the now Memphis, the Museum underwent its own kind of internal gentrification, or revitalization, in tandem with the changes around it. Long a bastion of the respectable history of the civil rights movement, and in particular a proponent of respectable, non-violent forms of protest, it increasingly applied these logics to its interpretation of Black Memphians and its interpretation of itself as a social justice brand. It brought James Pate’s charcoal series “Kin Killing Kin,” which depicts young Black men in Ku Klux Klan hats in the act of shooting each other, to provoke a conversation about youth violence, or, to divert attention from its complicity in conditions that destabilize Black communities. Most recently, at the behest of funders, it attempted to silence a journalist’s structural critiques of ongoing racial disparities in Memphis. We belong in the Museum less now than we did on our school fieldtrips.
Maybe that’s what Ms. Jackie was trying to tell us about gentrification. I would call the condos that have gone up around the Museum, around the site of King’s last breath, “luxury” because that is the parlance today that lets everyone know that we are now talking gentrification, displacement, and inequality. But there’s nothing luxury about the trite, overpriced white boxes with their kitschly refurbished historic exteriors that people are willing to live in to avoid poor people and Black people and especially poor Black people. Jackie had called the Museum a tourist trap, but they called it an anchor institution, a community good, a force for change, a site of social justice. They talked about it in terms of tourist dollars and economic impact. An arts district grew up around it, complete with warehouses-turned-artist-housing, galleries, microbreweries, fine dining, yoga studios, and distilleries. The Museum is the Black hole around which this constellation of white economies, the ones of new Memphis, thrives.
Memphis might be the only chocolate city in which the quintessential Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard is not in a Black neighborhood. That’s because its new name came after Black folks had mostly been moved away already, after Obama was president. Its renaming encourages and emboldens the gentrification along its two miles, which begins in the east near the medical district, passes the FedEx Forum basketball arena, and ends at the river. I be sitting at the bar at the southeast intersection of Main and Martin Luther King, Jr. Avenue and having a $12 cocktail with my last cash and looking out the window and seeing that sign and thinking, “Thank you, Dr. Martin Luther King,” for the money to enjoy this rosemary garnish in this bar with mostly white patrons and white owners and white staff. If I am lucky, I’ll get a new Memphis job at a company that will rent out the Museum for a fun end-of-the-year event so we can have an opportunity to go there without an ancestral or curricular imperative. Though one of my white co-workers might regale me with their love and knowledge of civil rights history and how their “kinda conservative” parents were brought to tears when they brought them to the Museum and so forth, those microaggressions will be a small price to pay for a less dutiful sort of trip to the Museum. Or maybe I won’t never have one of those new Memphis jobs. Syke. New Memphians don’t have cousins who been shot by the police or daddies whose noses were broken by the county cops. Maybe new Memphians don’t have cousins at all.
What is the mood like in Memphis 50 years after the assassination of King? What’s it like to be the poorest large Black city in the country and the city that killed a man leading a campaign advocating for poor people at the same time? What about that bankruptcy and environmental racism and foreclosure and infant mortality? How you—is it “y’all?—feel about all of this police surveillance? Where is the best barbecue/soul food? You say your little cousin was shot in the back by police before social media? Is the dream continuing here, where his blood was spilled? Is this ground zero for the civil rights movement? Is the dream now a nightmare? How can we keep King’s dreams alive? Do you know a sanitation worker? About this mountaintop: Are we there yet? Will we ever get there? Was his blood the magic?
Our mood is that low, salty, stank ass simmer of weariness of the same, that stale mid-summer mustiness, that heaviness of a viscous mourning we haven’t been able to put down because King and our cousins and friends are murdered and resurrected to be murdered again. We are tired of unfulfilled dreams, dreams deferred, cranes in the sky, and raisins in the sun. If we must be committed to the grotesque—the spectacle of our deaths as well as of the impunity with which our murderers smile and strut about like roosters—then we want some different kinds of museums. A museum for Duanna Johnson in North Memphis that houses Black trans folks. Ones for Steven Askew in that apartment parking lot not too far for my old high school, for Darrius Stewart on Winchester, for the baby Dorian Harris in that North Memphis yard, and for my cousin Boo in South Memphis, that house young Black folks. Some Mama museums.
We been trying to adjudicate the meaning of the civil rights movement since before we were born, since people died for us to vote, and to sit with white folks, to live with white folks, to have our silver rights, our equal opportunity, our integrated schools, our affirmative action. Or, we have been doing it since the state and its extrajudicial arms, radicalized by the Constitution, have been murdering Black people. We been doing it since 1968. We been wanting to know who really did what and thought what, and to what end, because we are trying to figure out why it didn’t take. In Memphis in particular, because we been taught that King’s death made us free, we especially have been trying to understand by so many means what exactly went wrong. Moreover, we want to know, what kind of freedom is this? As we lay dying, we here have been unlearning that lie.